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Spanish Civil War

Alternative meaning: Spanish Civil War, 1820-1823

The Spanish Civil War (July 1936April 1939) was a conflict between incumbent Spanish Republicans and emergent Spanish fascists in which General Francisco Franco succeeded in overthrowing the Republican government and establishing a dictatorship, the result of the complex political and even cultural differences between what Machado famously characterized as the two Spains . "Red" Spain represented liberals and moderates, who subscribed to democratic principles, as well as those advocating communist or anarchist revolution. "Black" Spain represented the landed elite, the urban bourgeoisie, the Roman Catholic Church and conservative sectors. These two factions had become increasingly radicalised during the Second Spanish Republic (1934–1939). The Republicans had a primarily urban, largely secular power base, while some other, more rural regions, also supported them. Particularly strong support for the Repubilcans came from Madrid, Catalonia and the somewhat conservative Roman Catholic Basque Country, partly because these regions were granted a strong autonomy during the Second Republic. The ultimately successful Nationalists, led by Franco, had a primarily rural, religious and conservative power base in favor of the centralization of power. The military tactics of the war foreshadowed many of the actions of World War II.

A Republican soldier seeks cover on the Plaza de Toros in , east of
A Republican soldier seeks cover on the Plaza de Toros in Teruel, east of Madrid

While the war only lasted about three years, the political situation had already been violent for several years before. The number of casualties is disputed; estimates generally suggest that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed. Many of these deaths, however, were results not of military fighting but the outcome of brutal mass executions perpetrated by both sides. In the wake of the war, Franco's regime initiated a thorough cleansing of Spanish society of anything "red" or related to the Second Republic, including trade unions and political parties. Archives were seized, house searches were carried out, and unwanted individuals were often jailed or sent into exile. Many were either killed or forced into exile; thousands of priests and religious people (including several bishops) were killed; the more military-inclined often found fame and fortune.

Following the war, the Spanish economy needed decades to recover (see Spanish miracle). The political and emotional repercussions of the war reverberated far beyond the boundaries of Spain and sparked passion among international intellectual and political communities. Republican sympathizers proclaimed it as a struggle between "tyranny and democracy", or "fascism and liberty", and many idealistic youths of the 1930s who joined the International Brigades thought saving the Spanish Republic was the idealistic cause of the era. Franco's supporters, however, viewed it as a battle between the "red hordes" (of communism and anarchism) and "civilization". But these dichotomies were inevitably oversimplifications: both sides had varied, and often conflicting, ideologies within their ranks.



Political background

From 1934 to 1936, the Second Spanish Republic was governed by a centre-right coalition that included the conservative Catholic Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA) as well as liberal politicans. This coalition had reached power by default after the conservative government had lost the municipal elections in 1934. In the face of widespread social unrest they fled. The internal contradictions in the government led to a limited ability to take action or make decisions. During this time, there were general strikes in Valencia and Zaragoza, street conflicts in Madrid and Barcelona, and a miners' uprising in Asturias , which was put down forcefully by the troops commanded by General López Ochoa and the Legionnaires commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Juan Yagüe, under the direction of Minister of War Diego Hidalgo . During this time, the government expended great efforts to annul the social gains that had been made in the previous years, especially in agrarian reform.

As internal disagreements mounted in the coalition, a radicalisation of the situation in the country was under way, as strikes were frequent, violence was rife, and communists and anarchists burned churches and persecuted people deemed to be conservative. After a series of governmental crises, the elections of February 16, 1936, brought to power a Popular Front government supported by the parties of the left and centre and opposed by those of the right. The new government was unstable, and on April 7 1936, President Niceto Alcalá-Zamora was deposed by the new Parliament, which named Prime Minister Manuel Azaña as the new President.

During this period of rising tensions, according to official sources, 330 people were assassinated and 1,511 were wounded in politically-related violence; records show 213 failed assassination attempts, 113 general strikes, and the destruction of 160 religious buildings; the actual numbers may be higher. On 12 July 1936, José Castillo, a lieutenant in the Assault Guards and member of the Socialist Party, was murdered by a 'far right' group in Madrid. The following day a group of Assault Guards officers took revenge by murdering José Calvo Sotelo, a Member of Parliament and one of the leaders of the extreme anti-republican opposition, as well as a former finance minister under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. This assassination precipitated the following events.

On July 17, 1936, the conservative rebellion long feared by the leftist Popular Front government of Prime-Minister Santiago Casares Quiroga, began. Casares Quiroga, who had succeeded Azaña in the office, had in the previous weeks exiled the military officers suspected of conspiracy, including General Manuel Goded y Llopis and General Francisco Franco, sent to the Balearic Islands and to the Canary Islands, respectively. The rebellion was not only a military coup, but it had a substantial civilian component. The rebels had hoped to gain immediate control of the capital, Madrid, and all the other important cities of Spain. Seville, Pamplona, A Coruña, Cádiz, Jerez de la Frontera, Córdoba, Zaragoza and Oviedo all fell under control of the rebels, also known as the Nationalists, but failed in Barcelona and Madrid. Because of this, a protracted civil war ensued.

The active participants in the war covered the entire gamut of the political positions and ideologies of the time. The Nationalist side included the fascists of the Falange, Carlist and Legitimist monarchists, and Spanish nationalists and most conservatives. On the Republican side were most liberals, Basque and Catalan nationalists, socialists, Stalinist and Trotskyite communists, and anarchists of varying ideologies.

To look at the breakdown another way, the Nationalists included the majority of the Catholic clergy and of practicing Catholics (outside of the Basque region), important elements of the army, the majority of landowners and many businessmen. The Republicans included most urban workers, peasants, and much of the educated middle class, especially those who were not entrepreneurs.

The leaders of the rebellion were the generals Francisco Franco, Emilio Mola and José Sanjurjo. Sanjurjo was the unquestioned leader of the uprising, but he was killed in a plane crash on July 20 as he was going to Spain to take control of the rebel side. Franco, the overall commander of the Spanish army since 1933 and already a noted pro-Fascist, flew from the Canary Islands to the Spanish colonies in Morocco and took command there. For the remaining three years of the war, Franco was effective commander of all the Nationalists.

One of the principal motives claimed at the time of the initial Nationalist uprising was to confront the anticlericalism of the Republican regime and to defend the Roman Catholic Church, which was censured for its support for the monarchy and which many on the Republican side blamed for the ills of the country. In the opening days of the war, churches, convents and other religious buildings were burnt without action on the part of the Republican authorities to prevent it. Articles 24 and 26 of the Constitution of the Republic banned the Jesuits, which deeply offended many of the Nationalists. Notwithstanding these religious matters, the Basque nationalists, who nearly all sided with the Republic, were, for the most part, practicing Catholics. John Paul II has recently canonized several of these martyrs of the Spanish Civil War , murdered for being priests or nuns.

Foreign involvement

The rebellion was opposed by the government (with the troops that remained loyal to the Republic), as well as by Socialist, Communist and anarchist groups. European powers such as Britain and France were officially neutral but still imposed an arms embargo on Spain, and actively discouraged the anti-fascist participation of their citizens. Both fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini and Nazi Germany violated the embargo and sent troops (Corpo Truppe Volontarie and Legión Cóndor) and weapons to support Franco. In addition, there were a few volunteer troops from other nations who fought with the Nationalists, such as Eoin O'Duffy of Ireland.

The Republicans received aid and purchased arms extensively from the Soviet Union. These arms included 1,000 aircraft, 900 tanks, 1,500 artillery pieces, 300 armored cars, hundreds of thousands of small arms and 30,000 tons of ammunition. To pay for these armaments the Republicans used US$500 million dollars in gold reserves; at the start of the war Spain had the world's fourth largest reserves of gold, about US$750 million [1], [2]. While some have contended that the Soviets were motivated mainly by the desire to sell armaments, and that they charged extortionate prices [3], there is no question that they also sent significant numbers of "advisors" who actively participated in the war, including in combat, on the Republican side. Later, the "Moscow gold " was an issue during the Spanish transition to democracy . The other country that helped Republican side was Mexico which provided rifles and food for the Spanish republic.

Volunteers from many countries, collectively known as the International Brigades were organized and directed by the Comitern through the NKVD to aid the Spanish Republicans. American volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and Canadians formed the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (the "Mac-Paps"). There was also a small group of American pilots called the Yankee Squadron that was led by Bert Acosta. Among the more famous foreigners participating in the efforts against the fascists were Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, who went on to write about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell's novel Animal Farm was loosely inspired by his experiences, and those of other Trotskyists, at the hands of Stalinists when the Popular Front began to fight within itself, as were the torture scenes in 1984. Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was inspired by his experiences in Spain. Norman Bethune used the opportunity to develop the special skills of battlefield medicine. As a casual visitor Errol Flynn used a fake report of his death at the battlefront to promote his movies.

However, while the Nationalists were receiving overt aid in the form of arms and troops from Germany and Italy, the Republicans received no aid from any major world powers (e.g. Britain or France or the United States) besides the aforementioned Soviet contribution. Many of these powers were still practicing a policy of appeasement towards Fascist regimes, or they viewed social revolutionary elements within the anti-fascist forces with distaste, after the failed revolution of 1934, or they believed that the Republicans were Communists.

Germany used the war as a testing ground for faster tanks and aircraft that were just becoming available at the time. The Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter and Junkers Ju 52 transport/bomber were both used in the Spanish Civil War. In addition, the Soviet I-15 fighter and I-16 fighters were used. The Spanish Civil War was also an example of total war, where the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Legión Cóndor, as depicted by Pablo Picasso in Guernica, foreshadowed episodes of World War II such as the bombing campaign on Britain by the Nazis and the bombing of Dresden by the Allies.

The war: 1936

For a fully detailed chronology see Spanish Civil War Chronology 1936.

In the early days of the war, over 50,000 people who were caught on the "wrong" side of the lines were assassinated or summarily executed. The numbers were probably comparable on both sides of the lines. In these paseitos ("promenades"), as the executions were called, perpetrated by both sides, the victims were taken from their refuges or jails and taken by armed people to be shot out of town. Probably the most famous of these was the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. The outbreak of the war provided an excuse for settling accounts and resolving long-standing feuds. Thus, this macabre practice became widespread during the war in areas conquered by either side. In most areas, within each village, both sides commited these assasinations.

Any hope of a quick ending to the war was dashed on July 21, the fifth day of the rebellion, when the Nationalists captured the main Spanish naval base at Ferrol in northwestern Spain. This encouraged the Fascist nations of Europe to help Franco, who had already contacted the governments of Germany and Italy the day before. On July 26, Germany and Italy cast their lot with the Nationalists.

The Axis Powers helped Franco from the very beginning. His Nationalist forces won another great victory on September 27, when the city of Toledo was captured; a Nationalist garrison under Colonel Moscardo had held the Alcazar in the center of the city since the beginning of the rebellion. Two days later, Franco proclaimed himself Generalísimo and Caudillo ("chieftain") while unifying the various Falangist and Royalist elements of the Nationalist cause in one movement. In October, the Nationalists launched a major offensive toward Madrid, but increasing resistance by the government and the arrival of "volunteers" from the Soviet Union halted the advance by November 8. In the meantime, the government shifted from Madrid to Valencia, out of the combat zone, on November 6.

On November 18, Germany and Italy officially recognized the Franco regime, and on December 23, Italy sent "volunteers" of its own to fight for the Nationalists.

The war: 1937

For a much more detailed chronology see Spanish Civil War Chronology 1937

With his ranks being swelled by Italian troops and Spanish colonial soldiers from Morocco, Franco made another attempt to capture Madrid in January and February of 1937, but failed again. The large city of Málaga was taken on February 8, and on April 28, Franco's men entered Guernica, in the Basque Country, two days after the bombing of that city by the German Condor Legion equipped with Heinkel He 51 biplanes (the legion arrived in Spain on May 7). After the fall of Guernica, the government began to fight back with increasing effectiveness.

In May, the government made a move to recapture Segovia, forcing Franco to pull troops away from the Madrid front to halt their advance. Mola, Franco's second-in-command, was killed on June 3, and in early July, despite the fall of Bilbao in June, the government actually launched a strong counter-offensive in the Madrid area, which the Nationalists repulsed with some difficulty.

After that, Franco regained the initiative, invading Aragon in August and then taking the city of Santander (now in Cantabria). Two months of bitter fighting followed and, despite determined Asturian resistance, Gijón (in Asturias) fell in late October, which effectively ended the war in the North.

Meanwhile, on August 28, the Vatican recognized Franco under pressure from Mussolini, and at the end of November, with the Nationalists closing in on Valencia, the government moved again, to Barcelona.

The war: 1938

For a much more detailed chronology see Spanish Civil War Chronology 1938-1939

The two sides clashed over possession of the city of Teruel throughout January and February, with the Nationalists finally holding it for good by February 22. On April 14, the Nationalists broke through to the Mediterranean Sea, cutting the government-held portion of Spain in two. The government tried to sue for peace in May, but Franco demanded unconditional surrender, and the war raged on.

The government now launched an all-out campaign to reconnect their territory in the Battle of the Ebro, beginning on July 24 and lasting until November 26. Their failure all but determined the final outcome of the war. Eight days before the new year, Franco struck back by throwing massive forces into an invasion of Catalonia.

The war: 1939

For a much more detailed chronology see Spanish Civil War Chronology 1938-1939

The Nationalists conquered Catalonia in a whirlwind campaign during the first two months of 1939. Tarragona fell on January 14, Barcelona on January 26 and Girona on February 5. Five days after the fall of Girona, the last resistance in Catalonia was broken.

On February 27, the governments of the United Kingdom and France reluctantly recognized the Franco regime.

Only Madrid and a few other strongholds remained for the government forces. On March 28, with the help of pro-Franco forces inside the city (the infamous "fifth column" General Mola had mentioned in propaganda broadcasts in 1936), Madrid fell to the Nationalists. The next day, Valencia, which had held out under the guns of the Nationalists for close to two years, also surrendered. Victory was proclaimed on April 1, when the last of the Republican forces surrendered.

Social Revolution

Main article: Spanish Revolution.

In the anarchist-controlled areas, Aragon and Catalonia, in addition to the temporary military success, there was a vast social revolution in which the workers and the peasants collectivised land and industry, and set up councils parallel to the paralised government. This revolution was opposed by both the Soviet-supported communists and the democratic republicans. The agrarian collectives had considerable success despite opposition and lack of resources, as Franco had already captured lands with some of the richest natural resources. This success survives in the minds of libertarian revolutionaries as an example that an anarchist society can flourish under the right conditions — or at least under siege, oppositors may argue.

As the war progressed, the government and the communists were able to leverage their access to Soviet arms to restore government control over the war effort, both through diplomacy and force. Anarchists and the POUM were integrated with the regular army, albeit with resistance; the POUM was outlawed, falsely denounced as an instrument of the fascists. In the May Days of 1937, many hundreds or thousands of anti-fascist soldiers killed one another for control of strategic points in Barcelona, as George Orwell relates in Homage to Catalonia.

See also


Figures identified with the Republican side

American pilots

Figures identified with the Nationalist side

Political parties and organisations

The Popular Front

The Popular Front was an electoral alliance formed between various left-wing and centrist parties for elections to the Cortes in 1936, in which the alliance won a majority of seats.

  • UR (Unión Republicana - Republican Union): Led by Diego Martínez Barrio, formed in 1934 by members of the PRR who had resigned in objection to Alejandro Lerroux's coalition with the CEDA. It drew its main support from skilled workers and progressive businessmen.
  • IR (Izquierda Republicana - Republican Left): Led by former Prime Minister Manuel Azaña after his Acción Republicana party merged with Santiago Casares Quiroga's Galician independence party and the PRRS (Socialist Radical Republican Party). It drew its support from skilled workers, small businessmen and civil servants. Azaña led the Popular Front and became President of Spain. The IR formed the bulk of the first government after the Popular Front victory, with members of the UR and the ERC.
  • PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español - Spanish Socialist Workers' Party): Formed in 1879, its alliance with Acción Republicana in municipal elections in 1931 saw a landslide victory that led to the King's abdication and the creation of the Second Republic. The two parties won the subsequent general election, but the PSOE left the coalition in 1933. At the time of the Civil War the PSOE was split between a right wing under Indalecio Prieto and Juan Negrín, and a left wing under Largo Caballero. Following the Popular Front victory it was the second largest party in the Cortes, after the CEDA; it supported the ministries of Azaña and Quiroga but did not actively participate until the Civil War began. It had majority support amongst urban manual workers.
    • UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores - General Union of Workers): The socialist trade union. The UGT was formally linked to the PSOE and the bulk of the union followed Caballero.
    • Federacion de Juventudes Socialistas (Federation of Socialist Youth)
  • PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya - Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia): An alliance of various socialist parties in Catalonia, formed in the summer of 1936, controlled by the PCE.
  • JSU (Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas - Unified Socialist Youths): Militant youth group formed by the merger of the Socialist and the Communist youth groups. Its leader, Santiago Carrillo, came from the Socialist Youth but had secretly joined the Communist Youth prior to merger, and the group was soon dominated by the PCE.
  • PCE (Partido Comunista de España - Communist Party of Spain): Led by José Díaz in the Civil War, it had been a minor party during the early years of the Republic but came to dominate the Popular Front after Negrín became Prime Minister.
  • POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - Worker's Party of Marxist Unification): A Trotskyite party formed in 1935 by Andreu Nin.
    • JCI (Juventud Comunista Ibérica - Iberian Communist Youth): the POUM's youth movement.

Supporters of the Popular Front

  • Unión Militar Republicana Antifascista (Republican Anti-fascist Military Union): Formed by military officers in opposition to the Unión Militar Española.
  • Libertarian or Anarchist groups. The libertarians boycotted the 1936 Cortes election and initially opposed the Popular Front government, but joined during the Civil War, when Largo Caballero became Prime Minister.
    • CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo - National Confederation of Labour): The anarchist trade union.
    • FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica - Iberian Anarchist Federation): An anarchist pressure group, very active in the Republican militias.
    • Mujeres Libres (Free Women): The anarchist feminist organisation.
    • FIJL (Federación Ibérica de Juventudes Libertarias - Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth)
  • Basque separatists.
    • PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco - Basque Nationalist Party): A Catholic conservative party under José Antonio Aguirre, which campaigned for greater autonomy or independence for the Basque region. Held seats in the Cortes and supported the Popular Front government before and during the Civil War.
    • ANV (Acción Nacionalista Vasca - Basque Nationalist Action): A socialist party which campaigned for independence for the Basque region.
    • STV (Solidaridad de Trabajadores Vascos - Basque Workers' Solidarity): A trade union in the Basque region, with a strong Catholic tradition.


  • Unión Militar Española (Spanish Military Union) - a conservative political organisation of officers in the armed forces, including outspoken critics of the Republic like Francisco Franco. Formed in 1934, from its inception the UME secretly courted fascist Italy. After the electoral victory of the Popular Front, it began plotting a coup with monarchist and fascist groups in Spain. In the run-up to the Civil War it was led by Emilio Mola and José Sanjurjo, and latterly Franco.
  • Alfonsine Monarchist - supported the restoration of Alfonso XIII. Many army officers, aristocrats and landowners were Alfonsine, but there was little popular support.
    • Renovación Española (Spanish Restoration) - the main Alfonsine political party.
    • Acción Española (Spanish Action) - a fascist party led by Jose Calvo Sotelo, formed in 1933 around a journal of the same name edited by Ramiro de Maeztu .
      • Bloque Nacional (National Block) - the militia movement founded by Calvo Sotelo.
  • Carlist Monarchist - supported Alfonso Carlos I de Borbón y Austria-Este 's claim to the Spanish throne and saw the Alfonsine line as having been weakened by Liberalism. After Alfonso Carlos died without issue, the Carlists split - some supporting Carlos' appointed regent, Francisco-Xavier de Borbón-Parma , others supporting Alfonso XIII or the Falange. The Carlists were clerical hard-liners led by the aristocracy, with a populist base amongst the farmers and rural workers of Navarre providing the militia.
    • Communión Tradicionalista (Traditionalist Communion) - the Carlist political party
  • Falange (Phalanx):
    • FE (Falange Española de las JONS) - created by a merger in 1934 of two fascist organisations, Primo de Rivera's Falange (Phalanx), founded in 1933, and Ramiro Ledesma 's JONS (Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista - Assemblies of National-Syndicalist Offensive), founded in 1931. It became a mass movement after the defeat of the PRR and the collapse of the CEDA in the 1936 General Election, when it was joined by Jose Maria Gil-Robles' Acción Popular, and Acción Católica , led by Ramón Serrano Súñer.
      • Flechas (Arrows) - militant youth movement.
      • Auxilio Social (Social Aid) - women's movement.
    • FET (Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las JONS) - created by a merger in 1937 of the FE and the Carlist party, bringing the remaining political and militia components of the Nationalist side under Franco's ultimate authority.


External links


  1. The statistics on assassinations, destruction of religious buildings, etc. immediately before the start of the war come from The Last Crusade: Spain: 1936 by Warren Carroll (Christendom Press, 1998). He collected the numbers from what is probably the most famous book on the religious persecution in Spain, Historia de la Persecución Religiosa en España (1936-1939) by Antonio Montero Moreno (Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 3rd edition, 1999).

Further reading

  • Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth:An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950. Reissued 1991, ISBN 0521398274.
  • Gerald Howson, Arms For Spain. New York: St. Martin’s Press: 1998.
  • George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1952 (first published in 1938).
  • Dante Puzzo, Spain and the Great Powers, 1936-1941. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1962.
  • Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck , Grigory Sevostianov , Spain Betrayed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
  • Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War. Peter Bedrick Books, 1983, ISBN 0911745114; Reissued Penguin Books, 2001, ISBN 0141001488.
  • Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39. Princeton UP, 1965, ISBN 0691007578.

Related films

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood, 1943, from the Ernest Hemingway novel)
  • ¡Ay, Carmela! (Directed by Carlos Saura , Spain/Italy 1990) The title is a reference to the song "Quince Brigada", which boasts of the valor of the Republican troops and laments their lack of supplies and air support.
  • Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, 1995)
  • Libertarias (Vicente Aranda , 1996)
  • Butterfly (La Lengua de las mariposas, José Luis Cuerda , 1999)

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